Working Effectively with Cross-Continent Teams by Microsoft PM

In today’s multicultural world we are more connected than ever, with many companies, particularly in tech spaces, finding their teams stretched across oceans. It has never been so important for teams to be able to work together despite being in different continents. Knowing how to effectively manager a cross continent team is a valuable skill for any modern-day Product Manager.

Microsoft’s Anusha Bhatnagar knows all about that particular challenge, and brings her expertise to Product School.

Meet Anusha Bhatnagar

Anusha Bhatnagar Microsoft

Passionate about building and delivering consumer-facing products that delight the users, Anusha Bhatnagar is an experienced Product Manager who is currently managing the Microsoft Launcher app on Android. As a Product Manager at Microsoft, Anusha is responsible for building engaging experiences for Microsoft Launcher on Android.

She is the owner for features like timeline, screen time, family and cricket widget for Launcher. Prior to Microsoft, she worked as a Product Management Consultant at HP, where she devised a strategy to increase the margins of HP’s PC products while taking into consideration current trends, consumer needs, and competitive landscape.

Working Effectively with Cross-Continent Teams

What Product Management at Microsoft Means

Some of the new units try to preserve the Product Manager title, but job hunters may notice as they browse any Microsoft careers that the role is called Program Manager.

This doesn’t mean, as the name suggests, that it is a Project Management role! It does involve working across the product lifecycle and with different disciplines. They are responsible for a product from ideation to protyping, working with design and working through the whole development cycle.

Program Managers also own the launch and work with Marketing to go through customer feedback. It’s a whole 360 role!

The role has evolved as Microsoft has embraced a ‘Growth Mindset’. This means people across Microsoft are encouraged to take risks, not be afraid of faulure, always be curious, and always try to learn.

This has led to a significant culture shift, making Microsoft more customer-driven and data-driven. There has also been a huge push towards diversity and inclusion, not just in hiring but within products as well.

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Aspects of Working with Remote Teams

What are the challenges?

One of the first issues with working in a remote team, is that it is hard to bond with stakeholders, especially as you don’t get to meet them in the hallways or at lunch. Some people don’t even have a photo of themselves set on their Slack profile or their email (or however you choose to communicate).

To build a human connection and trust, which is a huge part of Product Management, is very hard to do in these situations.

Another challenge is working with language barriers and cultural differences, which will always happen when working across continents to a certain extent. At Microsoft, some teams barely speak English when they first start.

Timezones also make agile development harder. How can you move quickly if you’re waiting twelve hours for a response?

It’s also more difficult to do design sprints and user testing sessions if you’re not all sitting in one room!

What are the benefits of remote teams?

When working with remote teams, you’re getting access to a more diverse set of opinions and ideas. People from diverse background with experience enrich the team’s ideas. This is especially useful for products built to serve a diverse set of customers.

In a remote setting you also get the luxury of a more flexible schedule. This can lead to a lot of uninterrupted focus time. Anusha finds that her mornings are relatively peaceful, with none of her team pinging her questions and distracting her.

Working with a global team also presents the opportunity to travel. A Microsoft PM might expect to be sent to China, India, and the US, among a host of other places!

Why work with global teams? 

Anusha posits that at some point in their careers, any modern Product Manager can expect to work with a global team. There is almost no escape from it!

From startups to big companies, all are relying on a workspace which is geographically diverse. The reasons range from what is economically beneficial, to giving the company an opportunity to understand a new market. Microsoft would not be able to sustain a worldwide brand without its centres in over 200 countries. Even if you want to work for a startup, expect to work across different geographies.

Millennials are also opting for jobs with flexible schedules. Studies have shown that beyond 2020, 50% of the workforce will be millennials, and the demand for jobs which offer remote and flexible positions will be greater.

Global teams also benefit from how diversity of ideas leads to innovation.

6 Lessons for Top Remote Teams

1. Invest in relationships

One of the best ways to do this is to have 1:1 meetings, which will help you get feedback and build personal rapport. If possible, use video calls to make a better, more human connection. In a best-case scenario you’d be able to travel once or twice a year to where your team are located, or have them come to HQ to meet you.

You should also find the time for team bonding/morale boosting activities, even across continents!

2. Strive for inclusion 

The first, and most obvious step, is to remember everyone’s name! It’s a small thing to do but a great way to build a positive foundation for a relationship. You should also take time to learn about your team’s culture, set inclusive tones in your presentations/content, and be an ally for minority team members.

You might also be interested in: Innovation, Inclusivity, and Women in Product

3. Make meetings more engaging 

Send the agenda ahead of time to attendees, and ask them if they have any additions. Meetings go more smoothly if people have time to prepare!

You should also be mindful of the language capabilities of your team, and speak slowly for non-native speakers. Use visual cues to convey your message. With current technological capabilities (screen-sharing), this should be relatively easy.

You could also consider if that meeting is necessary at all! Ask yourself, can this be resolved over email or chat? Just because you don’t see your teams all the time doesn’t mean you should find excuses to force an interaction – they’re still busy people!

On a technical level, make sure people use the Accept/Decline meetings feature, to make the presenter aware of who will be attending.

Listen for virtual hand raising, and pause for questions, just as you would in a normal meeting.

You might also be interested in: Is it Possible to Work Remotely as a Product Manager?

4. Rely on async communication tools 

Encourage use of commenting in decks/documents. It helps to create the sense of working together. Use Teams/Slack chats or channels over meetings/emails. If someone has a question, they may be able to get an answer while they’re waiting for you to wake up! Getting an issue resolved doesn’t always need a call.

5. Managing your inbox 

Our gut instinct when we get an email from someone higher-up, is to drop everything we’re working on and focus solely on that. But this might not be the best thing for our prioritization!

Anusha uses The Eisenhower Matrix to decide how to handle what comes into her inbox:

Eisenhower Matrix

You should also organize your inbox by conversations, which helps you find things more easily and regain control. Most inboxes will also have a Rules feature to help you prioritize.

You should also find ways to respect people’s personal time. Delay delivery/Boomerang tools for other timezones can be very useful here. That way you get your job done, but you’re not sending a teammate a notification at 1am.

6. You create your own boundaries 

Leverage the flexible schedule. Decide how much time you want to dedicate to a certain task and stick to it. You should also find time to set aside for personal tasks and activities, and encourage your teams to do the same.

Set expectations with teams and manager on your available times. This will make communication easier and prevent interruptions. Create a shared calendar for national holidays which will affect working hours.

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You can protect your personal time by creating rules for yourself on what days you will work late, eg no more than two in a row per week.

Have open discussion with manager on work/life balance. If it’s something you are struggling with, find solutions together rather than suffer in silence.

And finally, LOVE what you do! If you love your job it’ll be that much easier to feel balanced.

“We don’t just value differences, we seek them out, we invite them in. And as a result, our ideas are better, our products are better, and our customers are better served.”

Satya Nadella
Build Digital Products Banner

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